by Philip Greenspan
(Swans - February 26, 2007) Problems! Problems! Problems!! It seems as if life is a constant struggle to overcome an endless succession of problems. Fortunately most are minor and neither worrisome or troubling. Which one of the several tasty and appetizing menu choices shall I choose? Which of the many available weekend activities -- sports, films, plays, lectures, etc. -- shall I engage in and/or attend? We resolve these quickly and easily. Some, however, involve matters of consequence that are often formidable and require ingenuity and effort to resolve. A few are impossible. After several frustrating attempts we often decide to give up and alter our plans.
Within a few days this past week I saw a couple of films of two unique individuals who encountered and overcame the impossible. February is Black History Month and St. Thomas Aquinas College sponsored the film "Baadassss!", the story of a most imaginative and determined black film maker, Melvin Van Peebles. As a relatively inexperienced director he hit pay dirt by receiving a fantastic Hollywood film deal. But instead of conforming to what was expected of him and cashing in on his good luck, he decided to pursue his dream and produce a film that would break the mold of how Hollywood treated blacks! The major companies would never accept his script -- a realistic story of police corruption from a black's perspective. Nor would they hire his cast and production personnel -- over half of whom were minorities. Therefore, he had to produce it independently.
Those who were willing to put up the dough were unscrupulous and unsavory characters whom he promptly rejected. He put up all his savings. He wrote the screenplay. He directed the film. He starred in it. He cut production time short. And he overworked his personnel, whom he often browbeat into performing their tasks. To avoid the expense and onerous conditions that the unions would have required, he fooled them into believing he was shooting a pornographic film, which they never touch. Upon completion he refused to get the film rated and was then shocked to discover no commercial advertising would be accepted for an unrated production. The final shocker was the realization that only two dinky theatres -- yes that's correct only two, tee-double-u-oh! -- in the entire United States might consider booking it. He personally pestered and inveigled the owners of one of them to eliminate their triple feature policy to play his film alone for just one day. He not only publicized his film and got it played, but would you believe that it became a top independent grossing film; it ushered in the blaxploitation films that followed; and it elevated the status of blacks in the motion picture industry.
I grew up during the puritanical culture years of the nineteen-thirties and forties when a strict movie production code controlled what could be shown. The raw language and sex sequences in the early portions of "Baadassss!" were therefore shocking to me. But it wasn't long before the amazing story of this genius had me hooked.
A few days later I viewed a special showing of "The Trials of Darryl Hunt," a documentary of a black man who spent almost twenty years in prison for a crime he did not commit. The film will soon be shown on HBO and will be released for theatrical distribution.
Young, innocent Darryl Hunt was brought to trial for a brutal rape and killing of a white woman in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, in 1984. Although the case against him was weak, an all-white jury found him guilty and gave him a life sentence. The black community stood by Hunt and rallied against this injustice. The whites there were just adamant of his guilt. Although he was granted a new trial the result remained the same. His attorneys eventually obtained a DNA test that proved he was not the rapist. The judge, who then reviewed the case, refused a retrial because Hunt could still have been the murderer. Appeals to the federal courts, including the US Supreme Court, did not alter that decision. But his attorneys did not give up. Their doggedness forced a match of the DNA against state and national databases. Lo and behold, the actual rapist and murderer was found and he confessed. Although the prosecutors still insisted on keeping Hunt imprisoned the courts finally freed him.
Hunt was an unusual, honorable, and confident individual. He rejected offers of freedom others would have readily accepted because it would have compromised his integrity. He was sure that God would ultimately liberate him. The many impossible problems that confronted Melvin Van Peebles were overcome surprisingly quickly. For Darryl Hunt the impossible took a heck of a long, long time. But both were determined and they succeeded.
So long as you don't throw in the sponge, the impossible remains possible. My wife, I, and many other activists have been protesting against the US government's pro-war plans since the first terrorist war in Afghanistan. Could ordinary citizens peacefully change the policies of this most powerful government? Just wait and see!
Meanwhile, minor problems continually pop up to add a little spice into our everyday lives. As soon as I submit this essay to Swans I will be confronted with a perplexing problem that may take days before I get a handle on it. What shall I choose as the subject for my next essay?
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